For many, the conservation of ecosystems and organisms by simply putting up a fence and letting nature do its thing is not enough. Most of Earth’s ecosystems have been significantly effected by humans for thousands of years. For instance, if there is a sudden decline in the number of animals on an island or area in the archaeological record, particularly of the larger animals, humans have probably arrived. We have been influencing and destroying vast stretches of Earth for thousands of years, we have just got better at it. Another example is America around 12,000 years ago. Hunters started using small lances and arrowheads when hunting and after that around 70% of the large animal species suddenly vanished. Spooky…
So anyway, maybe we can ‘construct’ ecosystems best suited for animals to live in this world. Maybe a large park full of large animals living in conditions similar to the long distant past…?
Yes. Like Jurassic Park. If you research this park further online you will be able to escape this link, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It sounds a little like a film.
[Exterior. North-eastern Siberia – Night]
Russian scientist Sergey Zimov looks over his park, at his thousands of roaming herbivores. He knows without them, the permafrost will continue to melt, destroying the world.
Zimov: The first experiments we started in Soviet time….
Anyway that’s probably enough. Time now to destroy those dreams of a safari park of mammoths. The aim of the ‘park’ is to have a large herbivore population by re-wilding the area with large herbivores. By doing this and allowing them to graze freely, the grass productivity should increase and also reduce the layer that is insulating the ground, destroying soil fertility and melting the permafrost below.
The Animals Introduced:
- Yakutian horses
- Musk Oxen
- Ground squirrels
- Polar foxes
Not quite Jurassic Park, but still pretty amazing.
Well there are three main reasons. One being that the introduction of herbivores would reduce the rate of the permafrost melting, which when melted, releases the stored carbon dioxide into the air.
Secondly is that the environment in this area seems relatively unscathed and appears similar to how it was during the Pleistocene epoch (the geological epoch that lasted between 2,588,000 years ago to around 11,700 years ago).
And finally, Siberia seems one of the few places you can home wolverines and bears with little backlash. It wouldn’t be the first time a Russian scientist has taken up an experiment with dangerous animals in Siberia mind you (see here). Although there are some similar plans being made for North America, with the introduction of large mammals like lions, cheetahs and elephants, but it will be interesting to see how far these plans get (See Donlan 2005).
Does reintroduction work?
Well in the case of the Pleistocene Park, it seems to be working incredibly well and I have seen little on the damaging effects of introducing these species (though there are bound to be some). The aim of reintroduction schemes like this one are reasonable, but estimating the effects of moving species is incredibly difficult (though I can foresee some issues with free-roaming lions in North America).
For example, there have been many examples of reintroducing exotic feral horses into areas across the Americas, however in many cases they have dramatically altered ecosystems and made life very difficult for a variety of animals. We also have the dromedary camel (the one-humped camel), picky eaters which when introduced into Australia, all seemed set on selectively eating rare plant species. And finally, introducing wolves in Yellowstone. They hunted and killed a lot. I mean a lot, a lot. Obviously they expected them to hunt, but they have been very successful at this, perhaps too successful.
Is Pleistocene Park a template for future conservation efforts?
In a sense yes. We humans have influenced the extinction of countless animals, all the while our influence on the world ecosystems is only increasing (causing strange side effects in some cases – link). It seems then that ‘designing’ at least some areas to support a diverse range of animals will allow these animals to have the best chance they can to survive. This will lead to some difficult choices but ultimately by staying on the path we have we encourage the death of larger, more specialised animals and support the world dominated by bugs and insects. Our world also supports the evolutionary generalists, the animals that are okay at everything, but not very specialised. So, all the animals that until recently were ‘winning’ the game of natural selection, now seem almost bound to extinction:
Watch this video for more information of Pleistocene Park:
Donlan, J. (2005). Re-wilding North America. Nature, 436(7053), pp.913-914.